Disclaimer: It’s been a while since I reviewed a theatrical endeavor. I am shaking the dust off now because Janessa Jaye Champagne made the long distance call and I took it as a sign to finally put all my nasty family business behind me. (None of that was me, anyway; it was all my husband and son’s fault. Men and their egos, right?)
I happened to be in Grand Forks on August 9 and was intrigued by the title on the marquee of the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. “What is this ‘Hairspray,’ Jocasta?” I asked myself. “Is it a one-woman show about Medusa?” I always liked that bitch, so I wandered on in and nabbed one of the remaining seats.
While I was waiting for the show to begin, I noticed everyone, and I do mean everyone, was staring at a rectangular gadget in their hands. Was it some sort of tablet? Or a new-fangled erotic stimulator? Or both? Oo, fun!
Never one to be shy — ask my son — I leaned over to the patron next to me. With a wink I queried, “Is that some sort of toy?” The handsome young man winked back and told me it was telephone and a font of wisdom. Well, I have no idea what a telephone is but a font of wisdom . . . “Ah, like a sphinx! Can it tell me something about this theatrical production we are about to see?” He pressed a few buttons and introduced me to this new god: Wikipedia.
Here is what their scribes share: “Hairspray is an American musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray. The songs include 1960s-style dance music and “downtown” rhythm and blues. In 1962 Baltimore, Maryland, plump teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show. When Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, and meets a colorful array of characters. She then launches a campaign to integrate the show. Hairspray is a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s. The musical’s original Broadway production opened on August 15, 2002.”
Ah! So, Hairspray isn’t about Medusa! Although, once the show started I had to check my program to see if she had done the hair for the show. Clearly, they believe in the Jersey adage “the higher the hair, the closer to god”. See, that’s where the title of the show comes in. Hairspray is not just the chemical concoction that helps hold the women’s hair so high, but it’s the product sponsor of the dance show on which all the teenagers covet a spot.
There is also a comical homage to hairspray (“It’s Hairspray!”) during which the ensemble danced and sang while spraying cans of this hair setter into the air. (I was later told it was not real hairspray but just water. I was relieved to know that the production was NOT contributing atmospheric-destroying chloro floro carbons. Whew! Thank you director, Chris Berg, for that.)
But I get ahead of myself. Once the house lights dimmed and the stage lights came up, here’s what I saw:
The Empire has a wonderful auditorium, seating more than 400 patrons; however, it’s clear the stage could pose some issues for a set designer trying to fill it. In this instance, however, I was impressed how the set designer (Evan Montgomery) and the lighting designer (Lindsay Escobar) collaborated to make the most of the space. Back in ancient Greece, all we had was the sun and the stars for stage light, and large masks to project the size of the actors to the patrons in the nose-bleed sections.
About that set: There were a number of bright colored set pieces in vivid oranges and yellows that reminded me of the mid-1960’s Dating Game set. Throughout the show, stagehands masterfully moved rather large set pieces to suggest a TV studio, Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop, an apartment, the façade of Mr. Pinky’s store (a shop for plus-size women and girls), and Tracy’s living room where my old friend Janessa Jaye, a.k.a. Chris M. Stoner, and in Hairspray, a.k.a. “Edna Turnblad,” Tracy’s mother ironed laundry.
I was particularly impressed by the lighting design, which captured the energy of the music with narrow beams of colored light thrown in angles on stage during the TV studio numbers. Lighting in the apartment scenes illuminated just that area of the stage and drew me into that specific space while I forgot about the expanse of stage to the left or right of the scene.
Sound could have been a bit stronger. Granted, my ears are ancient, but I wanted to shout, “Sing out!” a few times. However, when one actor did just that the microphone squawked, so perhaps those who were mic’d were intimidated by the microphone system. Back in the day, we did not have to contend with microphones issues. Actors projected their voices or they found a job slinging gyros on the street. But I digress (again).
Let’s talk costumes. Fab-u-lous! Velma Von Tussle (Maura Ferguson) and Maybelle Motormouth’s (Annemarie Brack) really caught my eye. They were of the period yet had a bit more razzle dazzle, appropriate for the stage and a musical. A “heightened” reproduction of the period, you might say. I’ve already mentioned the hair in the show, but the wigs – okay even a fantastic twenty-five dollar can of hairspray could not possibly get coifs that high – were delightful. Velma’s seemed to get wider as the show progressed and she lost more and more control (when in doubt, tease it out!).
If you are still with me it’s because you want to know how those performers did. You may also be wondering who those performers were, especially given the premise of the show: racial integration. After all, in North Dakota it’s not just the landscape that’s white. Would Chris Berg find enough African-American actors to fill the show? And if he did, would they be any good, or would he have to resort to pulling in people of color selling falafels and then teaching them to “grape vine”?
While I’m not entirely sure where Berg found his diverse cast, he did. And a talented bunch of performers they are. Thank the gods!!
It’s a fairly large cast, and this review is long-winded enough, so I am going to touch on a few stand-outs and you will just have to go see the show for yourself.
Let’s start with Tracy, the chubby girl who wants to be on her favorite TV dance show. A-dorable. Played by Abigail Gilbert, she gave an endearing performance of the teenager who wants every day to be “Negro day.” I found myself immediately pulling for her to not only get on the show, but to get the cute boy, Link Larkin (played by Brody Katka), and show that snooty Amber Von Tussle (played to perfection by Leah Biberdorf) and her mother Velma.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and while Tracy’s mother is down and out at the beginning of the show, dear Edna finds the woman who has been lost to herself over the years. We first see Edna ironing in a drab housecoat, her hair hanging down. Janessa Jaye Champagne plays Edna, and fans of Janessa will be taken aback by her appearance in her first scene. Where is the glitz and glamour Janessa Jaye is so famous for? Instead we see a woman who has lost her zest for life, who is ashamed of her girth, and spends her days washing and ironing other people’s clothes to make a few dollars. Here is a woman who has become timid. And timid and Janessa Jaye do not go in the same sentence. This is where we see the actor, Chris Stoner, show his depth as a performer. He was able to embody the down and out Edna. Going big, camping up a role, that’s a lot easier than what Stoner does as the mother who is afraid to see her little girl get hurt by the world. But fear not, fans of Janessa Jaye Champagne! Edna gives herself a good talking to and is soon sashaying her big, gorgeous self across the stage, singing and “dueting” with her Wilbur (Hyrum Patterson) in fine feminine form.
Then there was Tracy’s best friend, Penny (played by Therese Kulas). I am told by good sources that have seen Ms. Kulas on stage previously that she completely transformed herself to the point many were surprised to find her name in the program next to Penny’s . She evoked Molly Shannon’s character on SNL who sticks her hands in her armpits and sniffs them. Kulas was the perfect best friend to Tracy and gets her just reward later in the show. Note: Ms. Kulas has a fantastic voice, which this role only affords glimpses of here and there.
Speaking of Penny getting her reward – let’s talk about Seaweed Stubbs (played by Leo Lakpa). Leo was seen in the Empire’s production of The Flick last season and was a scene stealer in the ETC production of Into the Woods when he donned a cow costume. Not only can the kid act, but he can also move! Of course, the character requires it, as he’s the one who teaches Tracy the dance moves that get her on the TV show. Leo more than delivered. He was smoking and I am sure that Penny wasn’t the only woman in the theatre who wanted to run off with him. My only question is why such a talented young man doesn’t audition for shows at the charming Fire Hall Theatre? Perhaps, Berg has him under contract. Hmm.
Moving on from hot young men, an admitted weakness of mine, let’s talk about Maura Ferguson’s performance. She was the epitome of the snotty mother who relives her glory days as Miss Baltimore Crabs through her equally snotty daughter. There was a touch of Cruella DeVille to her; maybe it was the mole on her face and the deliciously arching eyebrows. Ms. Ferguson is a familiar face on the Empire stage and it’s always a treat to hear her sing (or so I am told, this being my first jaunt in Grand Forks since, well . . . since forever). She gives a spot on performance and is a joy to hate as Velma von Tussle.
Brody Katka is perfectly cast as the handsome love interest, but he also brings a genuine nice guy personality to the role that makes us believe he would/could/should choose Tracy over Amber. His crooning is reminiscent of the old school guys who had all the girls swooning.
Leah Biberdorf, another ETC regular, was quite a different character from her tough chic character in last season’s The Flick. She wore her blond topiary well, and did a great job embodying the girl we all love to hate.
Hyrum Patterson as Wilbur Turnblad is a jokester dad who adores his wife and daughter. Mr. Patterson is a generous actor, never scene stealing, yet creating a memorable character that didn’t fade into the wallpaper.
A less familiar face on the Empire stage was Annemarie Brack as Motormouth Maybelle.. I believe she has what are called “chops”? Wow-wee. Wait for her to break out in “I Know Where I’ve Been” in the second act. I look forward to seeing her on the Fire Hall Theatre stage in the future.
I have to wrap up here, but not before commenting on a few standouts in the ensemble: Cody Robert Olson is perfectly cast as Corny Collins, the TV show host. He should thank his parents everyday for that mouth full of gorgeous teeth (whether it be for their genetics or paying the dental bills). Guy’s got a 100-watt smile, perfect for the cheesy host with a heart.
Among the ensemble, I got a giggle out of Juliet Wolfe’s clueless girl smile (she plays the girl who has to go away for…9 months), and who can forget little Inez, who is portrayed as both adorable and spunky by Sasha Yearwood. I was wishing to see more of her, but the script is the script. Maybe on my next return from the underworld.
Kudos to Casey King who played 4 bit parts in the show: the principal, the show sponsor, a guard, and Mr. Pinky. I think he was most convincing as the sponsor who isn’t so much racist as he is a capitalist wanting to avoid controversy in order to sell more hairspray. That complexity of character was brought forth in just a few lines. (His parents must be so proud.)
As far as the rest of the ensemble goes, there wasn’t a sour note or mis-step in the bunch. Everyone brought “it” and performed beautifully.
While all this talent is certainly commendable, credit is due where credit is due – Chris Berg, the director, and David Henrickson as musical director, have brought a polished and memorable evening of entertainment to the community. The show demands more than a few bells and whistles: the multiple set changes, the diverse casting in the fore-mentioned vanilla capital of the country (okay, Utah may have you beat), intense dance numbers, and the vocal demands. So, as the Romans say, Bravi!! If I had one piece of ancient wisdom to pass on, I’d say sing out! Blow the speakers out! Back in my day . . .
As I walked to my chariot after the show, I could not help but reflect on the serious message in Hairspray. The show may be packaged as bubble gum, but the sticky issue is still racial integration. After a tumultuous couple years of rising racial tensions in the U.S., Hairspray points out that 60 years after the Civil Rights movement you seem to be moving backward. Sadly, the world at the end of Hairspray seemed more hopeful than 2016.
As I pointed my chariot east, I yearned for the “simpler” days of the late 1960s when people were optimistic that things could change, when, indeed, they seemed to BE changing.
However, such sobering thoughts are not what most of you will come away with after seeing this delightful production of Hairspray at the Empire Arts Center. Most of you will come away with a big smile, singing “You can’t stop the beat.” And perhaps there IS hope in these lyrics as sung by Maybelle:
You can’t stop today
As it comes speeding down the track
Child, yesterday is hist’ry
And it’s never coming back
‘Cause tomorrow is a brand new day
And it don’t know white from black.”
Maybe music and art are they only reliable tools we have to change the world. Certainly, theatre has survived over two thousand years. There’s hope in that.
Our guest reviewer is no stranger to the stage; what we know of her life story has been performed time after time as part of the classic tragedy Oedipus. Never one to let the blues get her down, Jocasta fills her time with scrap-booking, raising Burmese pythons, and collecting antique jewelry (preferably without bloodstains). Her family history is…complicated. Many feel that Jocasta bears a striking resemblance to Kathleen Coudle-King, Executive Director of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre and enthusiastic patron of the local arts. Any connection between the two has yet to be confirmed.
Tags: Champagne Dreams Productions, community theatre, Corny Collins, drag art, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, Edna Turnblad, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Hairspray, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Miss Jaye, Motormouth Maybelle, Queen Latifah, theatre, Tracy Turnblad, Wilbur Turnblad, World of Champagne, Zac Efron